FLORENCE AND SAVONAROLA.
"Dwell within the heart adored,
Christ, our gentle King and Lord."
"Gentle Jesus, 0 how blessed
He who flies this world for thee
His the breast whose state is ever
calm, serene, and spirit free."
THESE words, taken from one of his own conzonas, beautifully express the feelings of Savonarola, when he turned his back on the world to enter the Dominican convent of Bologna. Expecting amid its quiet cloisters to enjoy a mind - "calm, serene, and spirit free," little did he anticipate the consequences of the step he had taken - how he was to pass future years in a whirlwind of excitement, on a public stage, fighting, and at length falling like a hero, beneath the banner of truth. Little did this gentle spirit, lover of peace as of purity, dream, as he entered the gates of the monastery, of a day when he would exclaim with Jeremiah, "Woe is. me, my mother, that thou hast borne me a man of strife, a man of contention to the whole earth !" But so it turned out.
On being received into the convent, he deemed himself unworthy of any position there higher than that of a lay brother. Clothed in a dress of the coarsest materials, living on the simplest fare, and partaking very sparingly even of that, his only bed a mattress filled with straw and stretched on a few bare planks, Savonarola remained for some years in this position, employing himself in teaching philosophy. Not that his heart lay in such studies; for, as the needle, set free and wheeling on its pivot, returns eagerly, tremblingly to the pole, so, when his professional duties were over, he did to the solitude of his cell, and the study of the Scriptures. It was over the field they offered for meditation he delighted to roam. They were the food of his soul, and to the devout and diligent study of the Bible he ascribed all his light, his comfort, and his remarkable attainments.He burned to engage in the work of saving souls, yet shrank for some years from entering on the priestly office. This might be ascribed to his sense of its responsibility and of the high qualifications which it demanded. No preparatory studies, no Church ceremonial, neither Pope nor prelate, he boldly averred, could make a man a priest; personal holiness, in his judgment - as in Luthers, who said, It is not the cowl that makes the monk - being not only the highest qualification for that office, but one indispensable and essential. This qualification he possessed in a pre-eminent degree. In no Church has there been many men so holy. Fra Sebastiano da Brescia, a very devout Dominican, who was vicar of the congregation of Lombardy, and for a long time his confessor, declared his belief that Savonarola had never committed - what he calls - a mortal sin, and bears the highest possible testimony to the purity of his life.
Perhaps his reluctance arose also from the degraded position into which those who filled it had brought the sacred office. So openly abandoned to vice were most of them at that time, that he was in the habit of saying, "If you wish your son to be a wicked man, make him a priest !" - a sentiment which gives us a terrible idea of the state of the Church; and one which correctly described as well, the regular as the secular clergy, cloistered monks as parish priests. Savonarola had been behind the scenes. He was acquainted with the secrets both of the convent and the confessional; and the recollection of the crimes his own eyes had seen, and his own ears had heard of,within convent walls, often led him to interrupt the vehement torrent of his discourses, and give vent to his horror and agony in these cries : - " The chastity of the cloister is slain The purity of the spouse of Christ is sullied !"
After spending seven years as a lay brother, he accepted of ordination; but for a while contented himself with a pastors, as distinguished from a preachers, work. Like "the ointment in the right hand, which betrayeth itself," his merits could not be concealed by his modesty; and he became so famous as a counsellor and confessor that his brethren urged him to enter the pulpit; and this he at length consented to do by preaching a series of Lent sermons, in 1483. So well known were his learning, his uncommon piety, and glowing eloquence, that he appeared in the pulpit at Florence, where these sermons were to be preached, with a very high reputation. His hearers, on the tip-toe of expectation, were prepared to admire and applaud. Yet no orator ever made a greater failure. In point of style, of gesture, of manner, of voice, says Burlamacchi, it was an utter failure.
Mortified and discomfited, Savonarola left this field, to pass the next three years in various convents, where, meekly resuming his old occupation, he devoted himself to the training of novitiates. He was not the first, nor has he been the last great orator whose first appearance on the public stage was a great failure. So let no man, who feels that he has the wherewithal within him, yield to despair. His years of retirement were in some respects like the forty which Moses, baffled in his first attempt to deliver his countrymen, passed among the mountains of Midian; like the three years which Paul, after his conversion, spent in the solitudes of Arabia. "Cast down, but not destroyed," Savonarola was not idle. Having discovered where his faults lay, and studied how to correct them, cultivated the arts of oratory, and learned how to clothe his burning thoughts in choicest words, and also how to suit the action to the word, he accepted an invitation to preach at Brescia. Let the result teach ministers and preachers to pluck up courage, and take pains. He carried the assembly, as it were, by storm. Now his fame spread abroad; his services were in constant demand; and at length Prince Giovanni Pico, a friend of Lorenzo de Medici, happened to hear him - a link that, no doubt, in the chain of providence. Charmed, fascinated, the Prince urged Lorenzo to invite him to Florence. He received Lorenzos invitation as a divine call; and went there to become the prior of the Dominican convent of St. Marco, a reformer, and the most famous preacher that had appeared in Italy.
In him, I may remark, as in most who had power to make men weep, pathos appeared to be associated with a keen sense of humour. A nun, for example, when the tide of persecution began to arise, had the impudence to challenge him to a theological discussion. Entering the lists with a blare of trumpets, she threw down her gage. No trumpet answered; nor monk, armed for controversy, appeared - only a message from Savonarola, requesting her to mind her spinning-wheel. How sly the humour of his answer to two Abbés who waited on him, "clothed in soft raiment!" On this occasion Savonarola tumed the conversation to the vows of poverty, as well as of obedience and chastity, which lay on the monkish orders; enlarging so much on these, as he threw now and then an expressive glance at the flowing garments of his visitors, that they began to suspect he was reflecting on them. Put on the defensive, they alleged that garments made like theirs, full and flowing, of ample measure and the finest cloth, lasted longest, and were therefore most economical. Whereupon our monk replied, with a comical smile, how much it was to be regretted that the founder of their order had not known that, because then, instead of enforcing the use of plain, coarse, and scanty garments, he would have established an altogether different rule.
Another marked feature of Savonarolas character was the breadth and tndemess of his sympathy; especially the warm and brotherly affection he felt for the poor. As drawing him nearer to the poor, he seemed to take a pleasure in his own privations - in the coarse dress, the mean accommodation, and the hard fare which the rules of his order enjoined. So far from despising, he regarded them as the suffering members of Jesus Christ, and the peculiar objects of Gods love; calling "the poor his children, and poverty his own spouse." This feature of his character, I may observe, as much as his fervid eloquence and extraordinary power to mould the mind and move the passions of men, forms a notable point of resemblance between him and Chalmers.
Courage was another of his features - such courage as distinguished John Knox, the man over whose grave, before the mourners left it, the Regent Morton pronounced this brief but great funeral oration, "There lies one who never feared the face of man !" Savonarola gave proof of this so soon almost as he entered on his office as prior of St. Marco. It had been the custom of his predecessors to wait on the chief of the state to thank him for the place and honour. Savonarola refused to do so. The monks, like "the conies, a feeble folk," were alarmed. Father Prior, said they, if you do not pay this visit, the consequences may be serious. Who has elected the prior? was his bold reply - God or Lorenzo? It was done by God, no doubt, was their answer. "Then," said Savonarola, "it is my Lord, my God, whom I wish to thank, no mortal man." Finding whom he had to deal with, Lorenzo made many attempts on the one hand to win him over by his attentions, and on the other by terror to force him to abandon his bold attitude and faithful style of preaching. In vain. His flatteries and attentions were lost on the man who, when Pope Alexander VI. hoped to seduce him over by the offer of a cardinals hat, replied, "I desire no other hat than the martyrs crown." Him whom favours could not seduce, fears did not deter from following the path of duty. "Tell him," said he to a deputation who, at the instigation of Lorenzo - determined to silence Savonarola by fair means or foul - came urging him to leave Florence, "Tell him that he is the first man in the city, and I am but a poor friar; nevertheless, it is he who has to go from hence, and I who have to stay; tell him that he should repent of his sins, for God has ordained the punishment of him and his." So it happened, I may remark, not long afterwards when the house of the Medici fell, and the sceptre departed from their hands.
The domestic affections were both singularly strong and tender in Savonarola: a feature of his character the more worthy of notice as proving how strong was that love of Christ which drew him from a home to which he was bound by so many and such tender ties. His letters overflow with affection. Very touchingly they show the love of home beautifully blending with the love of God and of his Son - as on the horizon heaven and earth seem to touch, to meet and embrace each other. Let him speak for himself: - "My most loved mother," he says in one letter, "do not lament my being far from you, and going about from place to place; for I do all this for the salvation of many souls, preaching, exhorting, confessing, reading, and giving counsel. I go nowhere except for these ends. And therefore you ought rather to be comforted in feeling that God had been pleased to choose a child of yours for this mission. Madre mia henorandissima, my most honoured mother, do not grieve at this, because the more pleasing I make myself to God, the more efficacious will be my prayers to Him for you." "Most honoured and most loved mother," he writes in another letter, "the divine peace and consolation be with you. Having heard of the death of my uncle Borso, your brother, I began to think what were the designs of Providence with regard to our house. . . . Your Creator lays his hand on you to awaken you, in order that you shou1d rise from the heavy sleep in which you have long lain. Questi dna, nadre mea, voce dat cielo - there, my mother, are voices from heaven. They cry aloud to you to withdraw from earthly things: they invite you to fix your affections on Jesus Christ. Believe me, mother, sisters, and brother, all most beloved, that the must sweet Jesus, our All-powerful Saviour, comes to you exclaiming, Come to my kingdom. . . . Oh, good God! oh, infinite mercy! oh, inestimable charity! that He should come to our hearts, as if He had a great need for us."
Like those summits of Monte Rosa, which rise above the snowy mass of a mountain that towers over all its fellows, and stands among the Alps second, and almost equal, in height to Mont Blanc, there are some points in the character of Savonarola peculiarly pre-eminent, in which his superiority to his age, and to the men of it, culminates. In respect of these he rises up before us, as I have seen some lofty mountain top, which, catching the sun before he touched the meaner hills, was in a blaze of light when it was but dawn on their tops, and almost darkness in the valleys at their feet. Let us look at two or three of these. Look at him as A PREACHER.
The day is breaking over Florence; and the warders on her walls descry by its grey light people gathering along the different roads that approach the gates. Byand-by there stands at each an eager and impatient crowd. They must have been early astir; for there mingled together are inhabitants of all the villages and hamlets of the hills, in whose lovely bosom Florence lies, with men and women who have left their distant cabins and flocks amid the rocks and romantic valleys of the Apennines. They have come for a different purpose from the early villagers I have seen pouring into that city at break of day, bringing for sale the flowers of their gardens and the produce of their fields. Seriousness sits on most faces; their talk is not of markets, or of the common topics of the day. Higher matters engage their minds and occupy their conversation, till the gates swing open. Then the crowd pour in, to join the citizens who, issuing from different streets, make their way to the Cathedral, and soon fill the vast area to overflowing; nor wait long till Savonarola ascends the pulpit to move them as the wind the waters of a lake, and tha tall reeds that fringe the shallows of its shore.
With extraordinary gifts as a preacher, I may here remark, Savonarola was also, in the opinion of many, endowed with other and still more extraordinary gifts. He was believed to be a prophet. It is not difficult to account for this. He preached largely from the Apocalypse; and bringing its mysterious utterances to bear on his own times, and the political movements with which he was mixed up, it is not difficult to believe that, speculating on events still in the womb of time, he made some happy hits; and so came to be regarded by many as invested not only with the preachers, but the prophets mantle. A man of enthusiastic temperament, whose position often led him to scan and turn an anxious eye on the future, it is not difficult to understand also how, in some moments of his life, he himself should believe that God had been pleased to reveal it in answer to his prayers. I am not prepared to positively affirm this to have been a baseless fancy. "The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him;" and who shall limit the Holy One of Israel, saying how far He may not go in revealing his secret purposes to such as are with Him in communion as close and holy as Savonarolas? Still his case may be only analogous to that of John Knox - a man of such keen sagacity that he foresaw, and foreseeing foretold, the results that were almost certain, under the moral government of God, to follow from certain lines of conduct. This was all which Knox claimed, and all probably which Savonarola possessed. It might be said of him as Cornelius Nepos says of Cicero, "His prudence seemed to be a kind of divination, which foretold everything that afterwards happened, with the veracity of a prophet." It is more important to remark, as a lesson to preachers, that the materials of those sermons by which Savonarola charmed and moved alike the most learned and most illiterate, were mainly drawn from two sources - - the word of God and his own heart. So he spoke to mens business and bosoms - mincing no matters; calling things by their right names; plucking the mask from the face of hypocrisy; exposing the foulness of whited sepulchres; dragging out vice, to the light of day and the execration of mankind, alike from the chambers of popes and princes ; exhorting all orders of men to abandon their immoralities and flee to Jesus Christ as the only Saviour of sinners; and all this in language so plain as to be level to the meanest capacity, and yet glowing with such impassioned eloquence, as to astonish and enchain the most refined. It was souls he yearned to save. Others preached about the saints, he preached the Saviour; religion not as an outward form, but an inner life - a close, daily communion with God. Speaking of and condemning the ordinary preachers, here is his language:- "They have been, says God, the ruin of my people: they did not know how to teach the way of truth, but rather praised their flocks, saying, To what an extent you are devout! You have many relics, many hospitals, many monasteries; you make many processions, and many feasts! Thus, alas, do they go about praising and deceiving the people! they are like the musicians and the singers in the house of him whose daughter lay dead, and who did not recall her to life. In the presence of souls without life, they imagine they can resuscitate them with their questions, and subtilties, and authorities, and beautiful similitudes. They have no success. Oh what lugubrious death-songs do they make! and yet, not only are the dead not revived, but very often the living are slain. Our Saviour enters the house; sees these performers, and having put them forth, resuscitates the dead."
The ordinary proverbs, New brooms sweep clean - Every dog has his day, are inapplicable to the case of Savonarola. For eight years at least, till his enemies, who hated his light as foul birds the sun, having quenched it in his blood, he shone as a preacher with undecaying lustre. Jovius, in his "Life of Leo X.," says, speaking of our monk, "He was a man of marvellous eloquence;" and the distinguished biographer and panegyrist of Lorenzo the Magnificent, whose sympathies were not with the prior of St. Marco, but with his enemy, nevertheless says, "that the divine word from the lips of Savonarola descended not among the audience like the dews of heaven: it was the piercing hail, the destroying sword, the herald of destruction." And there was need that much of his preaching should bear that character, as we shall see now, on looking on him as
It is in Gods moral as in his physical government of the world, where there is no sudden step from light to darkness; the day is preceded by the dawn. It were not only contrary to analogy, but to all the lessons of experience to expect to find a Luther, a Calvin, a Cranmer, a Knox, in our Italian Reformer. He had left the grave, but came forth, like Lazarus, wearing its cerements; or, to borrow another figure from Scripture, his eyes had been opened, but not to see objects clearly - only to "see men as trees walking." He had arrived at no settled conviction of the unscriptural character of the Church of Rome. To the last she held him by the grave-clothes; so, though he died a martyr for the truth, it was protesting against the abuses in the Church more than against her doctrines and constitution.
Though no "root and branch" reformer, Savonarola prepared the way for such as were; for though cleaving to many of the errors of Rome, he held fast to this grand doctrine of the Reformation, justification by the righteousness of Jesus Christ - not by works, but by faith. "So long," he said, "0 man, as thou believest not, thou art, because of sin, deprived of grace. 0 God, save me by Thy righteousness - by Thy Son. I seek Thus equipped, Savonarola went forth to reform Thy mercy - I bring Thee not mine own righteousness." Thus he paved the way for those who were to complete the work he had begun; and also by another doctrine which he boldly propounded and maintained in the face of a Church that withholds from the laity the free use Gods word, and denies them the right of private judgment. I refer to the supreme authority of the Scriptures, and the duty of people to read them, and try all doctrines and ceremonies at their bar
"People of Florence, give yourselves to the study of the sacred Scriptures! The first blessing is to understand them. Let us publicly confess the truth. They have been locked up; this light has been almost extinguished, set aside, left in the dust." "If," said Savonarola, when threatened with stension, "the Popes commands contend with the divine decrees, none are bound to observe them; to observe such commands would be a sin. Should the Church command anything against the law of love, then I say, Thou art not the Church, nor a shepherd, but a man, and dost err
A man of his word, what he dared to say, he dared to do; so that, when at length he was suspended, he appeared some short while afterwards in the pulpit, saying, "I have ascended this pulpit to obey Him who is the Prelate of all prelates, the Supreme Pontiff of all Popes" . The change he wrought on Florence was quite marvellous. Religion seemed to become the great business of its life; iniquity, as ashamed, was made to hide its face; the city showed all the signs of a great revival; men, while not neglecting their shops and business, went daily from them to engage in religious services in the church; all sinful and many ordinary amusements were abandoned; immodest books, statues, and pictures were given to the flames; hymns took the place of lascivious songs, and by night and day filled the streets with voices of holy melody; not only was there a great shaking among the dry bones, but around Savonarola, that prophet-like man, thousands in Florence seemed to stand up "on their feet, an exceeding army."
In his attempts to reform the Church, Savonarola did at least this good service, he laid bare the vices of Churchmen, from the Pope down to begging friars. If he did not overturn the fabric, he shook its foundations; and so made the work of future ages the easier. How thoroughly and boldly he went to work, let his letter to the Emperor of Germany testify. After telling him how he had written on the same subject to the Kings of France, Spain, England, and Hungary, he goes on to say "At present in the Church of God we see a state of things in which, from head to foot, there is no soundness, but an abominable aggravation of all vices. Iniquity usurps the seat of Peter, and without shame runs into all disorders. I testify in the name of the Lord, that this Alexander VI. is not a pontiff. He bought the papal throne, and by other manifest vices, I affirm, amongst other things, that he is not a Christian."
Take another bold specimen. Addressing cardinals, bishops, priests monks, nuns, as well as the people, he asks -
"How have you renounced the devil and his pomps, you who every day do his works? You have left the manna and bread of angels for food fit for swine. Your avarice augments; luxury contaminates everything; blasphemies pierce the heavens. You are of the devil, who is your father, and you seek to do his will. Cast your eyes in Rome; from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot no sanity is there!"
Such were the enemies of God and man against whom Savonarola, as a reformer, entered the lists to wage a deadly conflict - but not rashly, or ignorant of the issue. He foresaw that; knew it as well as we who read it in his martyrdom and the bloody page of history. These - fit introduction to a brief account of that martyrdom - are his own prophetic-like words:- "Do you ask me in general what will be the end of the conflict?
I answer, Victory! But if you ask me in particular, I answer, Death! But Rome shall not quench this fire, as it will endeavour to do. If it quenches it in one, another and a stronger will break out."
On the evening of Sunday, the 9th of April, 1498, while Savonarola and his brethren were engaged in singing vespers, the doors of St. Marco were besieged by a furious mob, which filled all the principal avenues to the monastery. The clergy were his enemies; he had boldly exposed their pride, and the vices in which they wallowed. So were the usurers - a powerful body in Florence: he had denounced their rapacity and the way they ground the faces of the poor, the widow, the fatherless, and the stranger. So were the artists - whose pictures were less admired were their history better known; he had exposed the manner in which they prostituted religion and desecrated holy things, selecting for models of the Virgin, and other female saints, their own mistresses, and courtezans of Florence as well known for their vices as for their beauty. So were the selfish politicians; against whom he had boldly stood up for the rights of the people and the liberties of the State. Now that the Pope had determined to place the seal of death on his brave lips, these, after Savonarola had been put on his trial, stirred up the scum of Florence to this murderous assault.
The monks, his brethren, with some lay friends who had hastened to the rescue, barricaded the doors of the monastery; and while they were thus engaged, Savonarola, seeing some of the brothers with arms in theirs, refused such defences, saying, "The arms of monks should be spiritual, not carnal." By-and-by the tumult without waxed louder and louder. Some rung the convent bell; others stood by the doors; but most those within took their place by the high altar, and along with Savonarola engaged in prayer, in momentary expectation of death. Fire accomplished what force could not. The doors yielded to the flames; a furious rabble burst in; battle raged in the quiet cloisters; blood besprinkled them; and along these, cutting down all opponents, the mob rushed, making the way to the choir, where, calmly waiting death, Savonarola and his brethren knelt, engaged in prayer. Not that all did so; there were some fighting men among these monks. Marco Gondi, who afterwards rose to distinction, faced a party armed with drawn swords, and kept them for a while at bay, with no better weapon than a wooden crucifix. Another called Petrucci, a strong, brave fellow, laid about him vigorously with a torch, and dashing through the crowd escaped without a wound. A third, Herico, a German, mounted the pulpit, where he opened fire on the rabble, killing many, and crying out each time he shot, "Salvum fac populum tuum, et benedicite hereditati tu." The place at length was carried. The resistance, such as it was, ceased. Savonarola, rising from his knees, gave himself up to commissaries from the Signoria; but before leaving the convent, with their permission, and amid that scene of cruel and bloody violence, he addressed a few words of exhortation to his brethren. He made a solemn and touching speech; the last words of his farewell this noble sentiment : "A Christian life consists in doing good, and enduring evil."
The next day he was put to the torture. Seven times in all did his enemies put him to the question; forcing him to cry out amid its intolerable agonies, "Tolle Domine, tolle animam meam !" These examinations lasted from the 10th of April to the 22nd of May; and ended in declaring that Savonarola, with two of the brothers, should be given up to the flames, as heretics, and schismatics, and rebels of the holy Church. The sentence was carried into execution the next day, on the 23rd of May. The place selected for the purpose was the principal square of Florence. We have stood there on the very spot, and fancied the scene - the mighty crowd, the sea of heads, over which rose three platforms; the first, near the palace, for the bishop and his attendants, who were to perform the ceremony of degrading the martyrs, all the three being priests; the second in a more central position, occupied by the commissioners of the Pope, Alexander VI., the foulest and bloodiest monster perhaps that ever disgraced humanity; the third, which stood near the golden lion, filled by the civil authorities, surrounded by their men-at-arms, and in the pride and pomp of state. From a mound of earth stands up a lofty pole; around it is heaped a great pile of faggots; and on its top a beam rests in the manner of a cross, from which hang dangling the ropes and iron chains about to be used in the execution. Here, after suffering many public and cruel indignities, half-naked and barefooted, Savonarola and his fellow-confors are led. The executioners now advanced to do their office on these victims of hellish cruelty and Romes craft. Having fallen on their knees, and prayed - each looking on his crucifix - one after another they ascend the fatal ladder, and are pushed off from its steps into the empty air. The rope tightens with a jerk; a few convulsive struggles, and the ransomed spirit is on its flight to glory, careless of what betides the poor body, which now drops piecemeal into the fire below. No friendly hand gathers the ashes to place them in a sacred urn. They are collected, but it is to be cast in dishonour on the waters of the Arno; a circumstance that recalls to our recollection what befell the ashes of Wickliffe - how they were thrown, as Fuller relates, into the Avon, and the Avon bore them into the Severn, and the Severn into the narrow seas, and these into the great ocean, where, emblem of his doctrines, they were carried to every shore on earth. How similar, in all essential respects how identical, the doctrines of Savonarola with the faith of Wickliffe, and of all that cloud of witnesses which Rome has sent to heaven from bloody scaffolds and in fiery chariots, the following beautiful verses prove. They are a translation of one of Savonarolas hymns, and with these, his own words, I close his instructive story.
"Jesus, refuge of the weary-,
Object of the spirits love,
Fountain in desert dreary,
Saviour from the world above
"Oh, how oft thine eyes, offended,
Gazed upon the sinners fall,
Yet thou on the cross extended
Bore the penalty of all
"For our human sake enduring
Tortures infinite in pain,
By thy death our life assuring,
Conquerors, through thee we reign!
Jesus, would my heart were burning
With more vivid love for thee!
Would my eyes were ever turning
To thy cross of agony!
Home | Links | Sermons | Literature | Biography | Photos